Areopagitica Summary

John Milton

Areopagitica

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Areopagitica Summary

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Composed in 1644, John Milton’s Areopagitica is a polemic, written in prose, in which the English poet and academician expresses his viewpoints in opposition of censorship. It is considered to be among the most influential treatises defending the concept of a human’s right to free speech and expression.  Areopagitica takes its title from the Greek Areopagitikos written in the fifth century BC by the Athenian Isocrates. It was distributed in the form of a pamphlet in defiance of the type of censorship he was protesting. Milton was a Protestant who supported the Presbyterians in Parliament. However, here he argues against Parliament’s 1643 “Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing” (or the “Licensing Order of 1643”) which required that authors obtain governmental license and approval before their work could be published. Censorship was an issue intimately familiar to Milton, who had been censored himself when attempting to publish several treatises in defense of divorce.

In building the foundation for his arguments, Milton cites historical precedents, pointing out that neither Ancient Greece nor Rome required their writers to be licensed. At times, writings deemed blasphemous or determined to be libelous were destroyed and punishments leveled upon their authors. Milton points out, however, that in those prohibitions only came into effect after the works were published and challenged. Further, he adds, licensing was first introduced by Catholic authorities during the Inquisition and used extensively as the popes in Rome gained more and more power. By the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent and the Spanish Inquisition banned texts not only on the basis of heresy but even if they were offensive in some way to individual members of the clergy.

Milton argues that learning requires reading books of all types, not just a canon considered acceptable by a ruling faction.  Knowledge can be gained by learning what is considered “wrong” or “bad” in forbidden books. Truths can be determined by studying the falsehoods they oppose. In stressing that a governing body should not have the power to determine what reading material can be available for the masses, Milton points to any person’s God-given free will, reasoning abilities, and individual conscience as reasons why people are fully equipped to make their own reading decisions. He points to Christian converts such as Saint Paul and how they acted on their own, virtuously, to burn books considered to be “magick.”

In arguing that any Parliamentary licensing order will not succeed, Milton stresses that such an order would be far too broad, even encompassing the Bible which had been frequently subject to censorship due to its passages depicting blasphemy and evil acts.  Further, Parliament will be unable to protect the ignorant from being influenced by scandalous book since the likely readers of texts would actually be the educated, not the uneducated. The ideas that licensing seeks to suppress will be spread via word of mouth. In addition, the entire concept of licensing is an unfair practice towards authors, who generally create their works with good intentions.  Milton sees censorship as an arbitrary, subjective, judgmental action on the part of those with the power to regulate written material.  The better course of action, he believes, is to allow publication and determine later if there in fact is libelous and/or blasphemous content. The books could be destroyed at that point.

Milton’s Areopagitica did not convince Parliament to remove the component of the Licensing Order of 1643 that required prepublication censorship. For drawing connections between free will and the rights of an individual, Milton was seen as radical for his time.  This coupled with his previous clashes with Parliament over his pro-divorce writings prevented his ideas from gaining wide acceptance.  Time was kind to Milton’s Areopagitica and the rights for which it argues.

The Puritan church soon adopted Milton’s ideas into its official charter. Allowances for divorce in cases of abandonment or infidelity became part of the Westminster Confession of Faith drafted between 1643 and 1650.  Milton’s beliefs had far reaching influence. The Constitution of the United States includes provisions that prevent prior restraint—that is, censorship before publication. Milton’s work stressed that censorship before publication would have a devastating effect on the valued rights to free speech and expression. This would greatly block the pursuit of the truth as related to providence.

Apreopagitica, both controversial and influential, remains one of the most significant defenses of individual rights and freedoms, and a reminder that these rights were not always the unchallenged ways of life they have become for many.